Release Date: 17 June 1917
Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Duration: 24 mins
With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Loyal Underwood, Janet Miller Sully, John Rand, James T. Kelley, Frank J. Coleman
Story: The Tramp’s arrival in the United States, where he finds love and heartbreak in equal measure…
Production: Charlie Chaplin’s penultimate film for Mutual sees him creatively stepping up a gear. The Immigrant is rightly acclaimed as one of Chaplin’s finest films from his Mutual period, but it is also a film that shows a maturation in his style, especially after the perhaps more inconsequential The Cure.
The starting point this time for Chaplin had been a plan to produce a ‘serio-comedy’ film about the nightlife of Paris and the people who inhabit it. ‘This theme offers scope for the sentimental touch which somehow always creeps into my stories,’ Chaplin told an interviewer at the time. ‘The trouble is to prevent that touch from smothering the comedy. There is so much pathos in the lives of all true bohemians that it is hard to lose sight of it even for a moment and the real spirit of that community is far too human and deeply respected by the world at large for me even to think of burlesquing it.’
The original version of this film was to open in a restaurant where Charlie and Edna would be customers, with Eric Campbell inevitably cast in the role of an irascible waiter. Again, the discarded footage used in the Brownlow and Gill documentary series Unknown Chaplin clearly shows how Chaplin slowly but surely developed his material, almost in real time. Take after take, he’d slowly finds the story or the incident he wanted to portray, sometimes moving actors around from role to role until he found the right fit for each of his ‘rep company’ members. Initially, Campbell was absent and the Tramp’s dining partner wasn’t Edna but Albert Austin. It was only on take 46 that Austin exits and Edna enters, after about three days of shooting.
The addition of Campbell as a foil after a full week of shooting (replacing the original waiters, James T. Kelley and Henry Bergman) changes the tone of the piece, and it is surprising it took Chaplin a while to arrive at this idea, as it had worked so well (and recently) in so many previous films. The slow development of something approaching a plot (it is more a series of small events) comes when Chaplin decides that his Tramp does not have the funds to pay his bill. A series of comic developments sees him work his way out of this predicament, and in the process of shooting this sequence, Chaplin began to ask himself what had happened previously to bring the Tramp and Edna to this time and place.
As with Easy Street, Chaplin drew upon his own background as an immigrant to America to give his characters a possible backstory. Out of Chaplin’s slow burn filmmaking method developed the main thrust of this short, some distance from his rather more simple starting place. This layering of complexity over something initially rather simple would stay with Chaplin his entire creative life; he would develop the bigger themes of his films from a series of smaller incidents that would lead him to something larger and more meaningful.
Unknown Chaplin reveals there were over 700 takes involved in making this film, about half set in and around the restaurant scenario that Chaplin started out with, and the other half focusing on life aboard the boat bringing the immigrants to the ‘new world’. The boat setting—something Chaplin had used to varying degrees of success before in such films as A Busy Day, The Rounders (a rowing boat!), Tillie’s Punctured Romance, By the Sea (a lifebelt, rather than a boat), and Shanghaied (Chaplin reused the rocking set idea he’d developed for that film on The Immigrant). He’d return to the theme almost immediately in The Adventurer, his final film for Mutual, and explore it further in A Day’s Pleasure, The Gold Rush, and in his final film as director, A Countess from Hong Kong.
During his Karno tours of America Chaplin had come to the country aboard the Cairnrona on his first trip in 1910, and then on board the Oceanic—having arrived in America for the second time he stayed, soon finding himself making his first films at Keystone in 1914. The immigrant experience was something close to Chaplin’s heart, and he saw an opportunity in exploring the origins of the Tramp and Edna in this film to explore the topic in greater depth. He immediately instructed his set designer Danny Hall to find a suitable vessel, and Hall soon hired a ‘tramp steamer’ registered at San Pedro at the cost of $1300 per day. It took 10 days before Chaplin got around to start shooting on the hired ship.
Such was Chaplin’s production process that the opening scenes of The Immigrant were the last to be shot. Sea-sickness was clearly an irresistible comic topic for Chaplin, and he makes much play of the Tramp (and others’) uncomfortable voyage across the sea, although when we first see him and assume he is ill, he is only in the throws of wrestling with a captured fish. Amid the would-be immigrants to America are a variety of characters (and caricatures) that the Tramp falls foul of, among them Albert Austin’s unwell Russian, Henry Bergman in drag (again) as a peasant woman, and Loyal Underwood as his tiny husband. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view of the weary travellers, they are roped together like cattle in a far from welcoming gesture (in this moment, Chaplin managed to sneak some basic and subtle political commentary into the film—outtakes also see him rounding on recalcitrant extras with an unusual degree of directorial anger during shooting).
At the end of the undisciplined filming process on The Immigrant, Chaplin had around 40,000 feet of film to work with in order to produce a short that was supposed to be about 1,800 feet in length (he’d apparently shot a total of 90,000 feet of film, equivalent to D. W. Griffith’s 12-reel feature film Birth of a Nation). Chaplin was unusual at that time for indulging in multiple takes, especially on short films. As David Robinson notes, ‘More than two years after The Immigrant, D. W. Griffith made his ambitious Broken Blossoms practically without a second take. For a director like Griffith to shoot any scene more than once would have been an admission of inadequate rehearsal and error. For Chaplin it was an assertion that it was always possible to do better.’
Faced with a seemingly unmanageable mountain of material, Chaplin spent the better part of a whole week, day and night, working on assembling a working cut of The Immigrant. He refused to break off until the work was done in fear that he might lose sight of the bigger picture he was trying to achieve. The editing process involved Chaplin viewing the same scenes (or variations thereof) over and over again, often up to 40 or 50 times to ensure he used the right take, the best option. As ever, his perfectionist tendencies were at play here and the final editing of The Immigrant was a painstaking process.
Where The Cure might have been the funniest of Chaplin’s Mutual films, The Immigrant was perhaps the most serious or most poignant. There is much comedy in it, of course, but underlying the whole thing is the theme of immigration and the struggle to make a new life in a strange world, the risks involved in finding companionship, and the worries of making ends meet in the face of a hostile world. All this in a comedy short that runs for under half-an-hour.
On board ship the Tramp meets Edna and her mother (Kitty Bradbury), only to lose them when the party finally reaches land. It is in the restaurant, searching for sustenance, that the Tramp finds Edna once again. A purely visual sequence indicates that Edna’s mother has died, and Chaplin plays the sympathetic friend well here. The comedy crashes back in with his inability to pay and his conflict with Campbell’s waiter. After that, he and Edna leave the restaurant into the pouring rain, heading to the marriage bureau to get hitched (where Chaplin’s then-new valet, Tom Harrington, plays the clerk). It is both triumphant and melancholy, as most of Chaplin’s films would be from here on.
The Immigrant was a quicker production than The Cure, taking just two months as Chaplin had hit upon the central conceit of the film relatively early in the process. Simon Louvish, writing in Chaplin: A Tramp’s Odyssey, notes that ‘whatever the convoluted and exhaustive process used to achieve his results, those results were now seamless [with The Immigrant and The Adventurer], as if they had been meticulously planned and structured in advance. The process was quite unique among film-makers, and revealing of the odd and singular nature of Chaplin’s intuition.’ Although Chaplin’s ‘process’ may appear rather hit-and-miss from the vantage point of 100 years later, it worked for him. He may not have exactly known what he was making while in the throws of filming, but when viewing the results of his efforts he seemed to have an eye for just the right shot needed to cement any given sequence.
Photoplay magazine hadn’t been the only source of a mild backlash against Chaplin, having criticized his outlandish salary (although the magazine ultimately concluded that his films made it just about worthwhile). During 1917, Charlie Chaplin ‘when he’s drunk’ was on a list of things that Minneapolis teachers and ministers objected to. Chaplin may have been happy to be among such ‘objectionable’ company as ‘uncensored Wild West films, thrillers, Theda Bara’. A Detroit pastor had already attacked Chaplin’s salary, claiming that ‘the fact that Charlie Chaplin now receives the largest salary of any man in the United States … is clear evidence of the enormous numbers of low-grade, unintelligent, shallow-minded men and women in the United States.’ It was clear in this case that attacking Chaplin was part of some larger, perhaps eugenics-infused agenda, although the same pastor attacked Mary Pickford before rounding on ‘the coarse, vulgar slapstick of Chaplin, which passes for humour with the witless and coarse-grained person of a low-order of intellect.’ Wow.
While huge audiences worldwide found Chaplin’s comedy highly humorous without exception, and without regard to their intelligence (or otherwise), elite critics with a platform (then and today) liked nothing more than to turn upon and castigate the popular, especially if it was popular with the ‘uneducated lower classes’, that is the mass of the population.
Perhaps some of this Chaplin backlash had come about due to America’s entry into the Great War in Europe in April 1917. Chaplin had already addressed his non-participation upon Britain’s declaration of war, three years earlier. Now the fact America had joined the conflict offered his critics another chance to have a go at the comedian who was happy to cash-in while his fellow countrymen fought and died in bleak fields in Europe to defend freedom. These criticisms would stick to Chaplin, despite his best efforts—he had already donated $150,000 of his Mutual salary to the British war effort in February 1917—and would sow the seeds that ultimately dogged the comedian through the 1940s and led to his self-exile in Europe in the 1950s.
Chaplin, though, had other more personal issues on his mind at this time—he was about to renegotiate his deal with Mutual or look elsewhere to pursue his filmmaking endeavours.—Brian J. Robb
Charlie Says: ‘The Immigrant touched me more than any other film I made. I thought the end had quite a poetic feeling. Even in those early comedies I strove for a mood; usually music created it. An old song called Mrs. Grundy created the mood for The Immigrant. The tune had a wistful tenderness that suggested two lonely derelicts getting married on a doleful, rainy day.’—My Autobiography, 1964
Trivia: Publicity for The Immigrant put out by the distributors highlighted an incident that occurred during filming, and revealed exactly how Chaplin went about directing himself and others during the making of a picture. ‘If you have wondered how Charlie Chaplin manages to play the lead in a production and at the same time direct all the other people who are acting in the scene, here is the reason: he is a ventriloquist, but none of the members of his cast discovered it until a bean which refused to go down with a spoonful of others lodged in Chaplin’s windpipe during the filming of The Immigrant. Chaplin was working with Edna Purviance in the foreground. They were seated at a table busily eating beans. Quick action was in progress in the background, and the various characters moved about at the sound of the “assistant director’s” voice. Charlie hurled directions from the depth of his chest to every corner of the set. “Slap me on the back,” he shouted from the side of this mouth to Eric Campbell, the 300 pound heavy, and Eric did it. Like lava from a volcano almost a pint of beans shot forth from Charlie’s face. It was now time for him to bring in some excitement in the background, and, still laughing, he leaned back in his chair, drew in his breath and was about to ventriloquize when the fatal bean choked him! His secret was out—the mystery of the “assistant director” was solved to the satisfaction of the players.’
The Contemporary View: ‘There’s no two ways about it: Charlie Chaplin is funny. If, perchance, you are a grouch and resolutely set yourself in the mental attitude that you won’t be amused by his nonsensicalities, go to any theatre where The Immigrant is being shown and, in spite of yourself, you’ll be carried away by those about you. The surprising thing about it all is that nobody ever thought of placing him on board a ship as one of a load of immigrants. Now that it is brought to your attention, it is as obvious as the historical story of Columbus and the egg… The $670,000 a year funny man is still “there”. The extremely limited number of titles speak volumes for the pantomimic art of the comedian.’—Variety, 22 June 1917
‘[The Immigrant is] a transparent intermezzo well repaying the closest analysis. In its roughness and apparent simplicity it is as much a jewel as a story by O. Henry and no full-time farce seen on our stages in years has been more adroitly, more perfectly worked out. It has, to an extraordinary degree, those elements of surprise that are necessary in every play, and which put the capstone of humour on comedy, because they add to the ludicrousness, the deliciousness of the unexpected. His payment of the waiter with his friend’s change concludes what is without any doubt at all the longest variation on a single comedy incident put on screen—a variation worked out with such patience and skill that every sequence of action seems entirely natural and spontaneous.’—Photoplay, September 1917
Verdict: Perhaps the best of the Mutuals, The Immigrant is when Chaplin’s serious side began to shine.
Next: The Adventurer (22 October 1917)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.